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Checking coaches before the tip-off


WOULD BOBBY KNIGHT qualify to coach your kid's recreational basketball team?

Perhaps not in Anne Arundel County, under an effort to closely scrutinize youth league coaches.

The former Indiana University icon will undoubtedly land a coaching job at some sports-craved college willing to overlook his background -- as long as the guy delivers championship trophies.

But what if Mr. Knight were to swear off big-time hoops? What if he decided that he couldn't tolerate another intellectually inferior college president or another imbecilic athletic director? What if under some extraordinary circumstance he decided to simplify his life and coach 12-year-olds? And what if he wanted to impart his basketball brilliance right here -- to Anne Arundel County kids?

Would his application get tossed? Let's explore.

Anne Arundel recreational officials will establish a program that allows the 60 county youth leagues to check the backgrounds of coaching applicants.

The program is voluntary. Youth leagues will decide for themselves whether to investigate their coaches.

The checks will screen out applicants convicted of drug, sexual assault or child abuse charges. The investigations will allow leagues to check those coaching winter sports, which start in November.

Of course, Mr. Knight doesn't have a criminal record -- he's got a well-documented public record of assaulting (adult) players, aides and one particularly smart-mouthed freshman. So the ill-tempered coach probably would not be affected.

The county's background checks seek to assure that anyone coaching soccer, basketball, baseball or other sports are not a threat to children's welfare.

Although leagues are not required to participate, those that do must bar anyone convicted of drug, sexual assault or child abuse charges from working as coaches or assistant coaches.

Recreation and Parks Director Dennis Callahan said that the leagues themselves might set tougher standards than required.

For example, leagues might decide to disqualify coaching applicants charged -- but not convicted -- of crimes. Some difficulties are sure to emerge if each league uses different standards and will have to be dealt with.

Still, the program has merit.

Mr. Callahan said he decided to offer the checks after reading a newsmagazine story months ago about four pedophiles who became youth league coaches.

"I took the magazine to a staff meeting and said, 'We're not immune from this,'" he recalled.

No such incidents have been reported in Anne Arundel County. No legal standard requires youth leagues to check out coaches. But the checks "give parents a level of comfort" when sending their children into recreational athletic competition.

Mr. Callahan will pay for this year's program from his budget. He expects about 1,000 background checks this year. But he might seek more money next year as other leagues sign on to the program and more coaches are tested. He says a company the school system uses charges $10 for each request, which would total $80,000, at most, to conduct the inspections.(The recreation department should seek competitive bids for the checks. Perhaps all county agencies that perform background checks for employees and volunteers -- including before- and after-school workers -- could use the county's police department to do the job.)

Mr. Callahan did not say how often the checks should be conducted, but leagues could decide to require them every three years when coaches are re-certified to learn about liability issues, injuries and treatment, health precautions and sportsmanship.

A few prospective youth league coaches are sure to resist background examinations.

Some with clean records will complain that the program is invasive.

They might feel insulted by a background check for a voluntary role that helps kids learn sports fundaments and have a good time.

Most current and future coaches, however, will understand the concern behind the effort. Adults with sexual assault, child abuse or drug convictions have no business volunteering with the roughly 60,000 children who participate in county youth sports leagues.

The background checks assure leagues give parents and children a security blanket.

After all, the checks simply try to make youth athletics fun and worry-free again.

Recreation and Parks officials have been increasingly concerned with rowdy parents, insolent young athletes and threatening coaches. The department required parents to sign pledges of good behavior last year. And last winter came Silent Saturday, a day when parents, coaches and athletes were prohibited from talking during the games.

Silent Saturday seemed draconian. It certainly wasn't normal. But it sought to remind everyone what youth sports were all about.

The background checks aim to tackle a problem before it starts. In this case, that's not a bad idea. Youth leagues should embrace this.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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